From compulsion to choice

I have been reading the excellent book Search Inside Yourself this week and it reminded me of several ideas that are applicable to managing gender dysphoria. The book was written by a Googler, who was one of their first employees. He also is a student of Buddhism and helped to develop a course about developing greater happiness, emotional intelligence and productivity at Google. In this book there is a chapter about managing emotions which is quite good, and I believe directly applicable to managing gender dysphoria. This is also a good book for engineering-types who want to learn more about happiness and emotion.

The beginning of the chapter states the theme of moving “from compulsion to choice”. Indeed this is a general theme in psychology, where we would like to relieve people from compulsion and move them to a place of choice. To have the freedom of choice is healthy, and to be ruled by compulsion is unhealthy. We still need to have compassion for wherever we are in that process! Beating yourself up for having compulsions will make things worse, and it is isn’t your fault.

However, the trans community often glorifies the reverse of this. One is supposed to be motivated by dysphoria, and indeed if one’s dysphoria is so crippling that one must transition, this is a sign that one is “really” trans. We also know from psychology that positive motivations lead to self-actualization, and the trans experience is often ruled by negative emotions, a way to escape from pain. Yes, sometimes pain is so great that it must be dealt with, however fear-based and pain-based motivations are not the way to flourishing. I have indeed met two people who transitioned, and felt it truly was a choice. They could be okay with their birth gender, but just felt it would be better to transition. These two people also seem to be the most well-adjusted and flourishing trans people I know.

He also discusses what to do with difficult emotions. He quotes the Dalai Lama, who says “while we can not stop a thought or emotion from arising, we have the power to let it go, and the highly trained mind can let it go the moment it arises.” Indeed it is the same with dysphoria. We have no control over these thoughts and emotions arising, but we do have control over our choices and how we manage them.

He suggests two things that make these emotions stronger, one is “treating them like a boss and obeying their every order.” The other is “treating it like an enemy and wishing it to go away.” Treating them like a boss, would mean simply obeying one’s dysphoria whether it is in your best interest or not, or even identifying with it and mistaking it for yourself. This also includes feeding it with porn and escalating it. Treating it like an enemy would be overcompensating, trying to press it by acting opposite to it (like the common way we see MTF spectrum people react to dysphoria by attempting to become hypermasculine and join the military or something), or to use numbing behaviors such as drugs or drinking to attempt to repress it.

The middle way is to be curious about it and treat it like a friend. Just acknowledging it and trying to understand it. Maybe letting it stay for a while, but neither feeding nor suppressing it. Such an insistent part of the psyche might well have an important message, but this doesn’t mean you have to slavishly obey it, you get to choose.

Healing from Trauma – Titration

In Peter Levine’s excellent book about trauma, Waking the Tiger, he talks about the principle of titration. This means that when healing from trauma, one must make sure not to re-experience the trauma too strongly to the point where one becomes overwhelmed. There is something called the zone of tolerance, where one is experiencing some discomfort but not so much that they become overwhelmed and either dissociated or potential re-traumatized. This is important to remember if trying to work with trauma. Some discomfort is necessary, but it should not be overwhelming. Before I learned healthier practices, I was engaged in some spiritual practices that emphasized having intense cathartic experiences. This is not helpful for healing, instead a gentle gradual approach is best.

This also will help when attempting to get more into one’s body. This can easily bring up intense feelings and if the feelings are too intense it is okay to back out and go gradually. When one is dissociated, no healing can occur. This also will reinforce the idea that you are in control, and you get to decide when to go in and out of the trauma. This is an antidote to the feelings of being out of control and helpless that are commonly associated with trauma. It is also a way of being gentle and having compassion for oneself.